Worlds can’t collide soon enough in apocalyptic ‘Melancholia’
Get ready to duck! Lars von Trier is lobbing a gigantic ball of metaphor straight at ya in Melancholia, his highly lauded, deeply lugubrious allegorical drama about the end of the world. And it can’t happen a moment too soon for the listless, unexplored, largely unlikeable characters who populate this bloated two-plus hour meditation on despair, the de-evolution of the human species, and one big, random act of natural retribution.
Nobody has ever accused Von Trier of predictability. In previous films, the persistently idiosyncratic Danish filmmaker has experimented mightily with form and content and how (or if) they interact—a melodramatic tragedy staged as a club-footed musical in “Dancer In the Dark;” a morality play about greed and revenge, Dogville, filmed on a bare soundstage, with tape marking off the imaginary interior and exterior spaces.
Melancholia is staged in slightly more realistic terms, but Von Trier’s opinion of humankind has not improved, and the overall atmosphere of disdain, coupled with a very slight storyline and a fatally slow narrative make this possibly the most aggravating Von Trier film yet. Rarely has so much precious time been frittered away for so little result.
Granted, there are some striking, poetic images in the slo-mo montage that opens the film. Then the story begins. It’s first half is a post-nuptial, all-night wedding party held at the plush lakeside estate of anxious Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich, complacent husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The bride is Claire’s angsty, black-sheep sister, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who gamely tries, but fails to play the happy newlywed—to the dismay of her groom (Alexander Skarsgard) and her exasperated relatives. We never learn anything about Justine, or why she’s so depressed (although Von Trier does a fine job of replicating her sense of hemmed-in claustrophobia for the audience), but as this interminable sequence wears on and on, we start to feel her pain.
The father Justine looks to for guidance (John Hurt) is an unreliable dotard who blatantly pockets the silver and inexplicably calls every female “Betty.” Her venomous mother (Charlotte Rampling) attends the wedding in some sort of tie-dyed track suit and delivers a speech worthy of Maleficent on the folly of love, marriage and happiness. Justine’s lowlife ad agency boss (Stellan Skarsgard) sets an intern to dog her steps all night to capture the all-important “tagline” that will sell his next product.
Meanwhile, amateur astronomer John tells everyone about the newly discovered planet, “Melancholia,” growing ever larger in the night sky. He spends the film’s second, post-wedding half assuring everyone the new planet will only be a “fly-by,” and not actually collide with the earth. While Claire grows increasingly panicked for the future of their little son, Justine seems to welcome the coming cataclysm as some sort of vindication. She strips down to bathe nude in the blue light of Melancholia, and declares that “The Earth is evil. No one will miss it.”
It’s not that Von Trier doesn’t have a point. Ours is a heedless, materialistic culture (at least the white, privileged culture represented in this movie), in which the paternal forces of power, money and science may not—surprise!—have all the answers, while those sensitive Cassandras who are uneasy about the way we seem to be hurtling toward disaster are treated as outcasts. I get it. But, really, this suffocating exercise in ennui conveys nothing that wasn’t stated more effectively—and far more succinctly—in about two minutes in the middle of Annie Hall, when little Alvy, the Woody Allen character as a schoolboy, hears that the universe is expanding. “He stopped doing his homework,” his mother frets to the shrink, to which Alvy sighs, “What’s the point?” Von Trier doesn’t really have much more to say on the subject, and he says it for far too long.
★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. A Magnolia release. Rated R. 136 minutes.